Previous Section Index Home Page

I feel that the Bill falls down on that component in particular.

Keith Vaz: Does the hon. Lady have in her surgeries constituents who come in with letters from the Home Office saying that they will get a reply within three weeks and who, a year and a half later, have still not received a reply? That is what frustrates Members of Parliament and constituents. It is not the legislation. It is the delivery of the service, which is so bad.

Angela Watkinson: The right hon. Gentleman is right. I am sure that every hon. Member has had similar cases in their advice surgeries, or e-mails and letters from people who are utterly frustrated by trying to navigate the system and get decisions made. Unfortunately, some of them resort for advice to people who are often not qualified to give it. They spend large sums of money trying to get decisions made. Having expended all their savings, they will contact their MP, only to find that their MP has a hotline to the immigration service and can get those answers free of charge and that they have made a serious mistake. I constantly advise people against using such advisory services.

The Bill intends to implement the measures proposed in the “fair immigration” review but they need drawing together. To address those problems effectively, we need a proper borders police. I am pleased that hon. Members on both sides of the House support that, not least my honourable neighbour, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), with whom I share a constituency boundary.

A borders police would incorporate the powers of immigration officers, police officers and Customs and Excise officers in a comprehensive set of skills. That would deal with all those issues much more effectively than separate authorities. It is necessary that the borders police have the expertise to intercept people traffickers and their victims.

The new powers conferred by the Bill will enable immigration officers to detain individuals at ports—I am intrigued by this—pending the arrival of a police officer, for a maximum of three hours. I am not clear where those police officers will be. Will they be within
5 Feb 2007 : Column 651
the environment of the port or airport, or will they be in the next town down the road? If they are in the nearest police station, suppose it takes them more than three hours to arrive. It is possible that there will not be a police officer available to attend within the three hours, so what then? Clearly, there will be serious doubt about the individual's right of entry. They cannot be detained any longer because the three hours have expired, so what happens next? They cannot leave the port or the airport. Do they just go to the back of the queue and start queuing again? We need clarification on what will happen. All those problems could be overcome with borders police, because they would have the skills and authority to deal with the issues at the same time.

Also absent is a proper code of practice so that immigration officers know exactly what factors displayed by an applicant would entitle the detention provision to be used and what conditions should be attached. We must address those serious issues if we are to ensure that such draconian powers are used properly. Absconding from detention and/or assaulting an immigration officer attracts a £5,000 fine, which is a huge sum. Obstruction attracts a £1,000 fine. There is only a thin likelihood that offenders would have the means to pay such fines. If they do not have the means, the fines are pointless. All three offences are punishable with a prison sentence of up to 51 weeks, which is just one week short of the year that is required to trigger the automatic detention rules. Why make it necessary for a separate application to deport someone in such cases? The meaning of “automatic” is unclear in that context. Does it mean that there will not be a right of appeal? Of course not—the use of “automatic” is rhetorical, because there is no such thing as automatic deportation.

Many of the provisions in the Bill will help to strengthen immigration control and are therefore welcome. We all have the good will to try to move towards that end, and the new offence of dishonestly obtaining asylum support, the restriction on late evidence in appeals, the seizure of cash and property connected to crime, and new offences relating to the employment of illegal workers are all welcome. However, the use of biometric data, even under the special circumstances detailed in the Bill, must be approached with extreme caution. The same caveats apply to that narrow use as to the introduction of general identity cards, and the issue gives rise to many questions. For example, what information may be stored, and for how long? How secure is it, and to whom is it accessible? All those arguments emerged in the debate on ID cards and they apply just as much in this case as they do to the more general issue. It could be the thin end of a very large wedge, as it may be softening us up for the highly controversial introduction of compulsory ID cards for everyone.

Clause 27 includes important measures to deal with the hideous trade in human misery. People trafficking has spiralled out of control. It is difficult to estimate the numbers involved, but between 700,000 and 2 million women and children are probably trafficked across international borders every year. Some 60 per cent. of immigrants in the United Kingdom arrived here illegally, many of them in the back of lorries, so the interception of those vehicles at points of entry is
5 Feb 2007 : Column 652
essential. However, it is not just lorries that are the problem—we must not forget boats.

In my boating days, a yellow flag had to be flown when one returned from abroad. Customs and Excise officers would come aboard, and they had the right to search the vessel. My boating days are over, so I am not sure whether that measure is still in place. However, there are hundreds of thousands of points at which a boat can enter the country—they are not necessarily large ports—and controls are required at all of them. We must be able to identify newly arrived boats, as people are not just sealed in the back of lorries but are smuggled into the country in other ways, too.

Many of the people who are trafficked are young women who think that they are coming to the UK to find a job and start a new life. They are, however, forced into prostitution and/or labour exploitation while the traffickers grow rich on abuse and brutality. I believe that hon. Members will join together in trying to stamp out that dreadful trade, but more could be done if a border police force were established. I understand that we have agreed to sign the 2005 Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings. As I served on the Council of Europe committee that introduced that proposal, I take a particularly close interest in the matter. We should establish a UK border police force with the expertise—it is specific expertise, not just casual observation—to intercept traffickers and their victims at our borders. We should ensure that separate interviews are given, at all points of entry, to women and children travelling with an adult who is not their parent, guardian or husband, so that we can identify potential victims. We must strengthen co-ordination between the relevant Government Departments and the Serious Organised Crime Agency to ensure a coherent, joined-up approach. We must ensure that every police force and local authority has a strategy to deal with the suspected victims of trafficking. We should set up a helpline to provide information for women who have been trafficked and for people who suspect that others are the victims or perpetrators of exploitation.

Mr. Graham Stuart: My hon. Friend said that we need the will to make things happen, so does she share my concern that, throughout the Government’s period in office, Home Office Ministers have come to the Chamber to introduce new legislation that is nearly always poorly thought through and fails to tackle the fundamental problems that it seeks to tackle? They should have tried to make the existing rules work better and properly enforce them, as lack of political will and ministerial responsibility is the real problem.

Angela Watkinson: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The proper enforcement of existing legislation together with the formation of a border police force would bring together the different authorities with an interest in the matter. They would be much more effective working together than they are working separately.

Clause 28 provides for the automatic deportation of foreign criminals and modifies the appeal procedure. There were 10,000 foreign nationals in our prisons in 2005 and, last year, the country was shocked to learn that thousands of them had been released without being considered for deportation. I know from
5 Feb 2007 : Column 653
correspondence with my constituents that ordinary law-abiding people are angry and incredulous that immigrants who have abused our hospitality were allowed to disappear into the community. They want to know why they were not deported on conviction.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that a basic reason for that problem is the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998? The application of that law has effectively allowed people who should be deported to get out of it. It costs the British taxpayer an arm and a leg, so the bottom line is that the Act ought to be repealed.

Angela Watkinson: My hon. Friend’s knowledge of the subject is second to none. His explanation is as I feared, and he has given a definitive answer on the problem.

If foreign offenders were deported on conviction—that is not the law at the moment—we would need secure borders to prevent their return. Otherwise, people would offend and, in effect, be released without punishment and then come back in a revolving door system and reoffend. Some of my constituents might not have considered that aspect when they wrote to me to complain.

We must reassure the general public on this matter. We are discussing exactly the sort of fear that the British National party is feeding on, particularly in areas of our country where there are very few immigrants. It appears to focus on areas where there are few immigrants and to frighten the people who live there by saying, “If you don’t do something, your area will end up like that area over there where there are large numbers of immigrants.” They then paint the picture that none of those immigrants makes any contribution at all to the life of the country. We must bear in mind such strategies and guard against them. The way to do that is to be absolutely open with people and explain to them that we are putting in place a robust system that is fair to everybody—to those wanting to come in and to those already here.

Deportation powers are already in place. That foreign national prisoners were allowed to go free and out into the community was simply a result of administrative failure on the part of the Home Office. Several Members have raised what might be the crucial point: will the Minister say whether the European convention on human rights will deter enforcement of the new deportation measures in the Bill where individuals face the risk of torture or inhumane or degrading treatment in their own country? If it will, an alternative solution must be found to deal robustly with foreign offenders from that category of country so that they are not free from the threat of deportation no matter how often they offend or how grave their offence.

Mr. Cash: My hon. Friend is addressing a central question that is extremely important. There is no reason on earth why we should not pass our own Westminster legislation to make sure that people are not abused or treated unfairly; we can provide safeguarding procedures. Does she not agree that the route that the Government are adopting through the Human Rights Act is causing more problems, partly because the categories in question extend from degrading treatment of the kind that includes torture, down to the smacking of children? They are both included in the articles of the convention.

5 Feb 2007 : Column 654

Angela Watkinson: Ever helpful, my hon. Friend adds an important point to the debate.

In the past, deportation has often been hindered on refugee and human rights grounds, and that might yet drive a coach and horses through this part of the Bill. It is intolerable that this country should have to assume permanent responsibility for foreign offenders who cannot be sent back to their country of origin. There must be another answer. We cannot simply be responsible for them for the rest of their lives because it is unsafe for them to go back to their country of origin.

If a United Kingdom border force was established and our borders were made truly secure, illegal immigrants would know that discovery and deportation were inevitable. That would deter both individuals such as those who come into our country every day in the backs of lorries or by other means and the professional traffickers who exploit both the people who pay them and every taxpayer in our country—the host country. There would be every incentive for new arrivals who want to contribute to the life of the country to enter the country legally, and we would begin—but only begin—to regain control in respect of who is living here, how many there are, where they are and how they are occupied.

The Bill is a missed opportunity to consolidate and simplify immigration law. Its unconnected measures do not have a central purpose, and unless it is amended extensively in Committee, I regret that it will not achieve its aim.

8.33 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): From my selfish point of view, I welcome the fact that Mr. Speaker did not impose time limits in the debate. However, that is also indicative of the fact that this major piece of legislation has not attracted as much competition among Members to speak as is often the case in this House. Does that show that this legislature has become weary of such piecemeal legislation dealing with the whole question of combating illegal immigration, ensuring the rights of people with genuine refugee problems and so forth? There is a need for a consolidation Act, but we should ensure that it is a good Act and that it undergoes full and rigorous parliamentary scrutiny if and when it appears before us in about a year’s time.

I have been present all afternoon and I remember that earlier, I perhaps inadvertently irritated my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I assure her that I did so unintentionally, but it is very important that the legislation undergo considerable scrutiny not only in Committee but on Second Reading. It must do so because it is extremely important to secure the integrity of our borders and to police our ports of entry in one way or another, and we have not fulfilled that task adequately in recent times.

I represent 14 miles of river frontage on the Thames estuary, the biggest part of which is the port of Tilbury—there are other wharves along that stretch—and I have seen the consequences of its being a serious port of entry. On Friday evenings, some 60 per cent. of the people who come to see me do so in relation to Home Office issues: papers being lost, immigration, refugee status and so on. It used not to be like that; the number of such cases has increased since I became a
5 Feb 2007 : Column 655
Member of Parliament. I feel passionately, as do many hon. Members, that we need to get things correct, and we are not doing so at the moment.

When there was a Conservative Government and it was unfashionable to suggest a borders police, I advocated the idea, but it was dismissed by—I think—the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). Now, half the House of Commons is with me, but unfortunately it is the wrong half. I hope that after one more push, people might come to see the compelling logic of having such a dedicated police force.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker)—one of those people who are paid large sums of money and cannot say anything here—muttered to me in friendliness, sotto voce, “You’re not suggesting that there should be 24-hour cover in all the ports around the United Kingdom, are you?” I say that what we want is the possibility of 24-hour cover. If we had a highly mobile and dedicated force with all the available technology, it would be possible, and it does not happen at present. That is the compelling logic.

There is technology that allows containers to be screened, but by and large it operates in many key ports only between the hours of 9 and 5. The ports, however, are 24-hour operations. Although such technology is not available everywhere, it could be moved around. If we had a dedicated borders police—I prefer to call them police because people understand that term, but the terminology is not terribly important—they could have all the powers that we are vesting in the various people referred to in the Bill. They could pursue and detect, and work with Home Office, Scots and Irish forces to ensure that wrongdoing such as people smuggling or the smuggling of illegal goods both in and out of the ports is combated; it has to be a two-way process. They would also be a great weapon against the potential for terrorism through our ports.

I appeal to the Government to reflect on the matter, or at least to take on board the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), who is unfortunately not in his place. He said that we should use this legislation as an opportunity to give powers to all the various agencies, so that they have interoperability. Immigration officers, customs and excise, the ports police—where they exist—the Home Office police forces and forces in Scotland would then have comparable powers.

I might have misunderstood my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary—she can clarify the matter when she speaks at the Dispatch Box—but she looked concerned or surprised when I told her of the following example. If a Kent or an Essex police officer has reasonable cause to believe that a person is an illegal immigrant, their instructions are that they must tell them—if they can convey the point; sometimes they use a card—to go to Lunar House, Croydon. That is not the way to combat illegal immigration.

The port of Tilbury has a small dedicated police force. It does not have the critical mass of a national border police, who would have better technology and mobility, criminal investigation departments and forensic back-up, but it works very hard. One or two ports do have port police and they could be the model
5 Feb 2007 : Column 656
for a national force. Those local port police do their best. On 23 January, the Port of Tilbury police detained three immigrants at the Tilbury-Gravesend ferry, which remains part of the port of Tilbury but is outside the customs boundary fence. The police believed that the three had entered the UK on the Ostend ferry, which arrives at Tilbury twice a day. The three were taken to the port police station, and the immigration officer for the port of Tilbury was contacted. Two immigration officers attended the port police station, but when the facts were relayed to them, they informed the police officers that it was outside their remit, as the immigrants had been found outside the port boundary. The matter would have to be dealt with by immigration at Stansted airport.

The Port of Tilbury police tell me that in the past other illegal immigrants whom they have found within the curtilage of the port have been dealt with promptly. They have either been repatriated or allowed to remain in the UK, under controlled conditions, while their case was investigated. However, on the eve of the introduction of this legislation to the House of Commons it appears that the immigration service at Stansted—which I find unsatisfactory in several respects—is going the opposite way to what Ministers suggest. The Port of Tilbury police told me about an occasion on which nine immigrants were put on the ferry and sent back to Ostend, but that is not happening now.

After the immigration people at the port of Tilbury said that the incident on 23 January was nothing to do with them, the understandably frustrated but diligent police officers contacted immigration at Stansted and informed it that three illegal immigrants had been taken into custody. After one and a half hours, the police were told that no immigration officers would attend and that the immigrants would have to be released. The Port of Tilbury police told me that they released the people following the receipt of a fax with those instructions.

There is grave concern that the serious lack of co-ordination between the areas of jurisdiction of the immigration service is undermining the intentions of Ministers. I conveyed this story to the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality, who said, unreservedly, that it was unacceptable. The story buttresses my case for a border police who would deal with all such matters, so there would be no misunderstanding.

I also became concerned when the Minister said that he intended to regionalise the immigration service. The estuary of the River Thames covers three Government regions: Greater London, the south-east and the eastern region. For some reason, I am in the same patch as Cambridge and Peterborough. If the Minister does intend to take that approach, I hope that he will, exceptionally, break the existing boundaries and ensure that the Thames estuary is in one patch. Otherwise, the confusion will remain and we will see repeats of the incident of 23 January.

Stewart Hosie: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew Mackinlay: Well, I was just coming to the West Lothian question, so I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Next Section Index Home Page